Clear skies … for how long?

The imperative of reducing air pollution in a post-COVID world


COVID-19 has changed our way of being, probably forever.
While stories of human suffering, economic losses, social distancing, and uncertain lockdown periods are creating insecurities and fear in people, there are also a few silver linings that are shining through. Steep decline in air pollution, resulting in an improved air quality which has not been experienced for years, is one definite outcome of the dreaded pandemic. Due to a complete lockdown across most of the nation, barring essential services, there was a shutdown of industries in a big way and most of the public as well as private vehicles were off the road since 24th March. Thermal power stations, a major source of pollution (and greenhouse gas emitters) have also been running at lower capacity since electricity demand has dropped.

A close up of a hillside next to a treeDescription automatically generated                          A view from the terrace of a building in Pune during lockdown Photo by Sharmila Deo

According to the IITM’s (Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology) SAFAR monitoring program, Pune has seen a drop in PM2.5 and PM 10 by 32% and 31% respectively, and a substantial 63% drop in NOX. Particulate Matter (PM) both 2.5 and 10, are a mix of suspended liquid and solid particles in the air, of which some components are very hazardous to health. PM typically consists of dust, fly ash, soot, smoke, aerosols, fumes, and condensing vapors that can be suspended in the air for extended periods of time. 10 and 2.5 are the two sizes (in microns, i.e. a thousandth of a millimeter) that the particles are found in, and while both have adverse effects on health, the PM2.5 effects are far worse since they can penetrate deeper into the body. NOx, composed of nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide is known to have severe impacts on the respiratory system causing inflammation of the airways and aggravating allergies and respiratory conditions like asthma. The source of both PM as well as NOx is combustion, and in Pune, mainly from vehicular emissions.

A recent Harvard study found that a small increase in long-term exposure to air pollution leads to a large increase in COVID-19 death rates. It declared that an increase of only 1 μg/m3 (microgram per cubic metre) in PM2.5 is associated with a 15% increase in the COVID-19 death rate. The scientists said that it was a known fact that polluted air increased the risk of acute respiratory distress syndrome, which is a serious condition, and now it could be related to COVID -19 deaths too. Another study from Italy shows that the areas showing high death rates correlated with the areas with the highest levels of air pollution.
Now that the linkages of air pollution and its effects on health get firmly established with the findings from these studies, they also underscore the importance of continuing to enforce existing air pollution regulations to protect human health both during and after the COVID-19 crisis.

Sooner or later, the lockdown shall end. Economic activities suspended during lockdown will will need to be resumed so as to enable people to earn their livelihood. But the question to ask is in terms of air quality, what learnings have we gleaned from the lockdown period? It would be impractical to expect and impossible to maintain status quo with regards to the improved air quality once ‘life resumes’, but are we, and our city planners willing to even consider possibilities of maintaining cleaner air, especially when the COVID-19 is still going to be lurking around for a while?
Monitoring of air and tackling the main sources of pollution are integral for improving the air quality of any place. Till the time monitoring remains weak, and the main sources of pollutants are not traced, any steps taken to mitigate pollution will only be shots in the dark. The administration will have to gear itself up to give air quality its due attention and make it a primary issue. There is already a National Clean Air Programme (NCAP) which aims to reduce PM concentrations by 20%-30% by 2024. The programme has mandated the 122 non-attainment cities, out of which Pune is one, to work out their own strategies to reduce the pollution and submit them as City Action Plans to the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) for approval. Non-attainment cities are those whose air quality falls below the national standards prescribed by the CPCB. Almost all the non-attainment cities have submitted and got approval on the plans, but a recent analysis by Parisar of non-attainment Smart Cities in Maharashtra showed that very little implementation has happened on ground.
In Pune, it is not difficult to trace back the post-lockdown improved air quality to a drastic reduction in vehicular emissions, as well as open burning activity, as the city is plagued with these as its main sources of pollution.
Strengthening public transport, in a way that private vehicles users are motivated to switch to it, will be a major achievement for Pune, since the number of registered vehicles in Pune surpasses its population. Once the Metro becomes operational, an effective last-mile connectivity will be crucial to gain a good ridership. Bus fleets will need to be reinforced with more buses fueled by clean energy.

COVID-19 has reiterated the need to connect the public health systems with the environment, and links directly to mitigating air pollution since it is a big contributing risk factor.
The NCAP has mandated a city-level committee to be formed with different government departments, State Pollution Control Boards, civil society organisations, and air quality experts. Cities like Nashik and Nagpur have already formed these committees, but no such committee has been set up in Pune yet. This committee needs to be set up on priority. Under the NCAP funds allotted to cities for measures to improve air quality, Pune has been sanctioned a budget of 10 crores. It would have been ideal had the city-level committee been set up, for it to deliberate over what the city needs for mitigation and how best to utilize these funds, rather than the funds coming with a pre-decided allocation (for e.g. NCAP has asked for the money to be spent on electric crematorium, dust sweeping machines, tree plantations and awareness activities).
Undoubtedly, the challenges on the government are going to continue in terms of trying to contain the spread of COVID-19 through different measures, and to get the economy up and running. But with the added dimension of the link between COVID-19 mortality rates and air pollution, air quality is one issue which it cannot afford to ignore any longer in the current circumstances.



Sharmila Deo – Air Quality Coordinator, Parisar

Parisar is a Pune based non-government organisation working on various urban issues including air quality, sustainable transportation, road safety, road design and heritage.
For more details contact: Sharmila Deo
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